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  • Imagining Shakespeare
  • Hope Davis
Imagining Shakespeare. By Stephen Orgel. New York: Palgrave, 2003; pp. 172. $26.95 cloth.

Stephen Orgel, an accomplished writer on the subjects of Shakespeare and Jonson, augments his already sizeable scholarly oeuvre with his most recent book Imagining Shakespeare. As author of celebrated studies such as The Authentic Shakespeare (2002), Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England (1996), and The Illusion of Power (1975), Orgel has been a central figure in the recent revaluation of Renaissance literature and theatre, reading those texts in light of a nuanced consideration of cultural and political history, specifically in the form of New Historicism. This latest study stands as a significant contribution to that school of inquiry.

In Imagining Shakespeare, Orgel presumes the construction of history. History is, for him, a "complex of interpretations of many different kinds of evidence" (xiv). In light of this view, he focuses less on the textual history of Shakespeare's playscripts than on performances of the plays during the Renaissance. His decision to privilege performances springs from the resolute belief that the performance "is really all there is" (xiv). The events of history and acts of performance share an ephemeral nature; they disappear, leaving traces for the scholar to discover and interpret. Therefore, it is to the extant evidence of performances that Orgel turns for his study of the imagined Shakespeare.

Starting with the common argument that Shakespeare's texts were written for performance, not for reading, Orgel asks several often articulated questions concerning the nature of a play. What is a play? What is real about it? Is the text the play, or is it the performance? Unlike many who have grappled with these questions before, Orgel asserts that he is not out to answer them. Rather, he emphasizes the diversity of ways people approach the questions, highlighting the complex relationship between text, performance, and history. Thus, he begins a tour of "documents in the history of our theatrical imagination" (9).

Chapter one, "Imagining Shakespeare," and chapter two, "Staging Clio," both interrogate the assumption that Shakespeare's plays contain historical truth. The first chapter explores the reader's desire to use Shakespeare's plays as accounts of British history while overlooking the playwright's considerable license regarding his plots and characters. The second chapter examines the shifting ways in which historical accounts are used in Shakespearean productions: while some artists not only highlight the historical depictions in the plays but also add to them, others disregard the historical components altogether. Chapter three, "History and Biography," explores how interpretations of pictorial evidence, both factual and fictional, construct Shakespeare's appearance and personality.

The final three chapters all consider examples of the intersection of text, performance, and interpretation. Chapter four, "Magic and History," uses A Midsummer Night's Dream to explore the historical role of magic as a simultaneously subversive and controlling element in theatre and in society. In chapter five, "The Pornographic Ideal," Orgel investigates how a mere two-word reference to contemporary artist Giulio Romano in The Winter's Tale infuses a vivid picture of sexual potency into the play, while exposing the complex interpretations of the artist and his own imagined past. And chapter six, "Imagining Shylock," delves into the character of Shylock, considering his position as an insider, as opposed to an outsider, in Venetian society. Orgel's evidence calls attention to Shylock's ambivalent attitudes, teasing out the character's traditionally charged position in Shakespeare's history. [End Page 379]

Chapter three exemplifies Orgel's nuanced interpretive method. Here, he traces the changing depictions of Shakespeare's likeness, starting with the engraving of the title page opening of the First Folio. From this point, Orgel sketches a map of the various pictures of Shakespeare, some famous and some not, and attempts to identify the authentic features in each. Rather than simply trying to decipher which pictures are the most lifelike, Orgel analyzes the pictures for their theatricality and political foundations. He concludes by asking the following questions: What do we want from these pictures? Does the quest for hard evidence lead us to a better picture of the real person? Or does it, rather, point us...


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pp. 379-380
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